One Long Year

Hello everybody, it’s bee a long year. I know it hasn’t been a year since I posted–but it’s been a year since I’ve posted regularly.

It’s also been over a year since I’ve self-harmed, which I consistently fist-bump myself for. It’s a great feeling. It’s the longest I’ve gone without a relapse since I started back in…I can’t remember when. Dudes, I haven’t even pinched myself or pulled my own hair out. I’m pretty proud of myself.

It’s been over a year since I got my job. I’ve successfully survived two summers at this place. Summers are insane. It’s the only time of year the school-age program is more full than the early childhood program. Since I run school-age, I am on my toes constantly. I planned an entire summer full of over 40 activities–field trips, STEAM workshops, dance lessons, theater and improv games, yoga, guest artists, trips to local businesses, and other stuff I can’t even pull up right now.

I was easily at work 10-12 hours a day at least twice a week running everything. For my first summer as a supervisor, not shadowing, it went pretty well. The kids had a blast and the teachers seemed to, almost as much.

Now summer’s winding down and I”m preparing to be a student again. I’m finally enrolled at UWM’s online Cultural Foundations of Community Engagement and Education program. In May I had to go through the process all over again to prove my residency. Last fall, they were going to charge me out-of-state tuition unless I filed an appeal or delayed my enrollment for a year. I didn’t have the time or energy for an appeal, so here I am. Classes start next week. It’s a Master’s program, but I’m part-time, so I’m not sure how intense it will be.

I’m hoping less intense than this summer. I tried to take an accelerated summer class, but ti didn’t work out. I was reading close to a thousand pages a week along with writing several discussion posts and reflection pieces. My final paper proposal was turned down a week and a half before the class ended. I dropped the class. It’s not because I didn’t think I could do what I needed to do–I knew I could. What I couldn’t stand was the idea of me turning in a sub-par paper, skimping on my readings, and half-assing reflection papers simply because I didn’t have time to put in more effort. I knew I could get so much more out of this course if I had more time. So I’m taking it this fall instead and planning to get the most out of it.

Oh, and I’m having nightmares about the upcoming school year as it affects the kids at work. Fun stuff!

I’m taking photos for a wedding in a couple weekends. It’ll be my first legit gig, and I’m pumped. I want to get some more practice in if I can. I also kind of want to start my own photography business. Some friends are encouraging me too. I take really good pictures and my camera is awesome. I think I’ll give it a try.

Stay tuned. I have a lot to say, just haven’t had much time to write it.

Peace out.

My Reggio Classroom

My Reggio Classroom

This May I started working at a child care center coordinating their community youth programs. Among other things, I have a classroom of 14 first and second graders I work with every day after school.

My center enrolls about 40 kids in its after-school program. They’re split into 3 classrooms, and I run one of them. It was a pretty proud moment for me when my supervisor told me I’d have my own classroom. Not only did this affirm that I’m lead teacher material, it gave me an opportunity I’d been waiting for since I decided to become an educator.

I got to decorate my own classroom.

The room I was given hadn’t been used for much in a while. One of the other teachers had spent time over the summer reorganizing it, but I got to take it over from there. I had shelves, a rug, a couch, some tables, pictures, whiteboards, and a fake tree to work with.

My childcare center follows a particular philosophy of learning—the Reggio Emilia approach. The Reggio Emilia philosophy follows the belief that children aren’t empty sponges waiting for us to fill them—a popular belief in many settings—but that they’re sponges already full of knowledge, curiosity, and potential, and it’s out job as educators to coax that out and guide it.

Rather than teaching them curriculums and integrating structured learning, we set up an environment that’s natural for exploration and self-lead learning. We give them invitations—setting out materials that they can work with if they want; and provocations—laying out a challenge or asking a question that they can attempt to meet or answer.

The approach was developed in the 1970s, as educators in post-World War II Italy looked for new ways to teach their students. It is geared towards younger kids, which is a large portion of what our center focuses on. But we serve a good number of school-age youth as well, and Reggio methods are adapted in age-appropriate ways for the after-school program.

Loose parts are a huge part of Reggio. Loose parts can be almost anything—acorns, beads, pine cones, sticks, leaves, beans, pebbles, string, corks, rings, pop tabs, rocks. These items are traditionally arranged in baskets and laid out on tables or shelves. That’s part of the invitation. They’re always there, and the students are welcome to use and explore them. But there’s no pressure to do so, or to do so with a specific goal in mind. That way, discoveries occur naturally, and it’s a lot more satisfying and exciting for the student. I watch my kids every day as they take out the baskets, sort pieces, mix and match, build, create, and observe. They get so much more out of it than if I’d handed them a bunch of rocks and said “Build a tower!” or beads and said “Make a pattern!”

Blocks are also very versatile. My class has traditional wooden blocks, “natural” looking blocks, wooden train tracks, cut-up sponges, and cups. LOTS of cups. I gave them cups on a whim, looking to fill one of the empty compartments on my block shelf, and they ran with it. Almost every day now, I have multiple students building cup towers, making cup walls, sorting the cups based on size and color, and all sorts of things.

It’s so much more exciting than pre-designed Lego sets or puzzles.

The best things happen when the areas overlap. I’ve seen many glorious palaces built with a mixture of loose parts and blocks.

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The classroom layout and environment is also very important. According to Reggio, education consists of three teachers. First, the child; they lead themselves through life and are constantly showing us new things. Second, the traditional educator role: the responsible, trained adult in the room who can ensure safety and guide learning. And third, the classroom itself. Everything about the learning area influences the experiences had inside it.

I spent a lot of time arranging my classroom until it satisfied my needs. I wanted lots of options for play, but not so many they were overwhelming. I filled the shelves with items that got swapped out occasionally with others in the closet. I wanted the classroom to be open, to invite collaborative play and to let the students decide what the spaces would consist of. Wide open floor spaces make for awesome buildings. Putting the art table next to the “creation station” with no barrier left plenty of room for crossing over materials.

I wanted the room to have a natural feel. The art table went by the window to let the outside world and natural lighting inspire their work. The book nook went in a quiet corner, which I equipped with the couch, the rug, the tree, soft pillows and bean bags, a fish tank, and of course bookshelves. The book nook was closed off on one side but not all, so there could be some separation if quiet was needed, but it was not totally isolated, allowing for some versatility there as well.

I wanted the room to be inviting. The first few weeks the students were there, I lay out the invitation for the kids to make art to hang on the walls. I wanted them to feel like the room belonged to them—it wasn’t someone else’s room that they borrowed for a few hours each afternoon.

The walls were soon bedecked with their art: their hand prints, color patterns, abstract shapes, items of interest. The invitation is ongoing, and I still have some of them coming up to me with art asking if it can be put on the walls.

I’ve worked in programs before where we followed a specific schedule and lead curriculums. Those experiences were very rewarding, and I could see the benefits they had on the children I worked with in those settings. It was a huge change for me to arrive at a place where the emphasis was not on what I would be teaching the kids every day, but on what we could all learn together as a community.

I love watching my kids explore the materials laid out for them. I love seeing the amazing things they come up with in exploration and pretend play. I love being able to interact with them on a new level as I explore with them, sometimes sitting back and watching as they guide themselves through the day.

I do have one big thing in my classroom that is not Reggio: the job wheel. Though we don’t follow a specific agenda, each day brings a series of steps we need to follow. We walk from school, eat our snack, and clean up. During the first days, the kids fought over who would walk in front, and it often ended in tears. Some of them didn’t care, but for those that did, it was a pretty big deal.

The one it really mattered to had ADHD. That might have been the cause of the frustration, or it might have just exacerbated it. He would push and yell at others when they tried to walk in front, but didn’t seem to think it was unfair for him to walk in the front every single day. (For ease of reading, I’ll call him A.)

I’d tell him, “You can’t walk in front today, let someone else do it,” and be met with an indignant “Why?”

“Because it’s not fair.”

Why?

So, among other things, Line Leader became a job that switched every day. The first day I introduced the job wheel, when A pushed his way to the front, I said, “A, you’re not in the front today.”

I was met with his pout. “Why?”

“Because Line Leader is a job now, and today, it’s B’s job.”

“Oh. Okay.” And A walked to the back of the line.

It felt like a miracle.

The job wheel helps me so I don’t have to hand out plates and wipe the tables every day. But it’s also very important to A now, as well as the others in my class who have ADHD and other needs. For that reason, I’m not getting rid of it, even if it’s not Reggio.

I love my classroom. It’s a place where I can witness creativity, teamwork, struggles, resolutions, tears, laughter, growth, and learning every day. During my interview, my future supervisor could see me bouncing with excitement when she described the Reggio Emilia approach. I’d been trying to explain to people for years that kids come into this world equipped with everything they need, and in most cases, adults don’t build them up, we squish it all back down by convincing them they don’t know anything. If we’re teaching them stuff they already know, how is that going to make them feel? Bad? Wrong? Inadequate?

There are things like the alphabet and how to hold scissors that have to be taught. But a sense of curiosity, wonder, excitement, a love of nature, the drive to learn, a feeling of community, caring for others—that’s part of the package they walk into our lives with. Reggio Emilia takes for granted that all of that is there. It’s not our job to invent our students. It’s our job to meet them where they already are, and give them the chance to invent themselves.

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Find out more about the Reggio Emilia apprach here: 

https://www.reggioalliance.org/

http://www.reggiochildren.it/identita/reggio-emilia-approach/?lang=en

 

Back to School

Back to School

Last Friday was the first day of the year where it felt like fall. I saw brown leaves on the ground and whistling down the street on my way to work. I wore layers for the first time since winter. The air was not just chilly; it was the autumn kind of chilly, the kind that holds promises for more tantalizing days, for harvests, for darkened evenings and blustery afternoons.

I walk into stores and I see back to school banners and notebooks for seventeen cents. Along with the mellow hues of the season come the bright block colors of new pencils, crayons, and paper. Along with the chill of the air comes the thrill of going back to familiar classrooms or starting the same routine somewhere new.

I’ve been trying to stay off social media, but when I do check for work purposes, I see posts from my friends excitedly preparing for their second, third, and final years at college, or gearing themselves up for grad school.

This is the first year in four that I am not joining them. It wasn’t going to be originally, but it’s how it ended up playing out.

**

Applying for and being accepted into Alverno’s Master’s Program in Counseling and Community Psychology has been one of my proudest accomplishments. I walked through so many months with that happy success under my belt, excited that I had concrete plans to share with anyone who asked me what I would be doing after graduation.

I’d always worried about the transportation piece. I still don’t have my driver’s license; though even if I did, the idea of the three-hour drive through highways and city streets terrifies me. Taking the Greyhound wouldn’t be the end of the world, especially if it’s to further my education in a field I was really excited about. At that time, I wanted my counseling license as soon as possible; I was sure I wouldn’t be able to get an impactful enough job without it.

I was determined not to move to Milwaukee, either, though many of my friends and advisors suggested that I do. I didn’t want to leave behind the many connections I’d worked hard for in my city. I didn’t want to leave my current job—if there was even a chance of my ability to return.

Besides, I didn’t have the resources to make such a dramatic move. I had nowhere to live there, and no knowledge of the safest places to live there. I didn’t have the money it would take to make the move.

So I waited knowing something was going to work out—I just had to figure out what.

Three weeks after graduation—three weeks of being homeless, living out of my car, and couch surfing—I got my current job. Originally I’d applied to the place as a part-time daycare teacher, just looking for anything to get me through the summer. But once I submitted my application and resume, I received a reply just a few hours later, asking me to apply for a different position: Youth Program Coordinator.

When I read the job description I was elated and apprehensive. It seemed too difficult for my current capabilities. I wasn’t sure I was up to that much commitment, that much work. Was I qualified? Should I even bother? It would be my first full-time job, my first professional position.

But the title—“youth program coordinator”—spoke to me. The descriptions of the position working with youth and families and developing programming for them excited me on a level I hadn’t felt before. This could be a bridge into exactly what I wanted to do.

I applied and was invited for a phone interview. At the end of the call we scheduled a face-to-face interview for the following week. At that interview, I talked with the childcare supervisor, CEO, and CFO. I was intimidated; and yet they were all so friendly, inviting, and encouraging. They saw my foot bouncing with excitement, they saw my eager smiles as they described what I would do. I saw their looks of satisfaction when I described my experiences and passion.

They said they’d been looking to fill the position for a few months, and had hoped to have it filled by now. But they were waiting for the right person.

The next day I received an email inviting me to fill the position.

I was the right person.

**

All summer I worked on programming, connections, fundraising, relationship building, planning, organizing, and assisting with anything in my realm. It’s the most intensive and exciting job I’ve ever had. I feel more confident and at home than I have in years, except maybe for my position in the after-school program.

All of my experiences cumulate into this position. I’m reminded daily how good I am at what I do, and my supervisor has mentioned more than once how happy they were that they’d waited for me.

“You’re the one for this job,” she tells me. “This is you.”

I didn’t really think about Alverno until August had already begun. I’d applied before my legal name change; I realized I had yet to change my name in the system.

I realized that Milwaukee was more of a commute than I was prepared for.

I realized that counseling wasn’t what I needed right now.

**

I formally withdrew from Alverno the day before Orientation. Numerous phone calls after numerous days putting them off lead to two unanswered voicemails from my advisor and, finally, a request to receive the withdrawal in writing. It took me longer than it should have to send the email because I was full of regret. But when I got the reminder on my phone because I forgot to delete it, I felt some relief that I didn’t have to drive hours this morning or take the greyhound all Friday afternoon to get there. Besides, I wouldn’t miss the last day of camp for anything.

Earlier that month my supervisor had pointed me in the direction of UW-Milwaukee’s online Master’s Program in Community Engagement and Education. I applied experimentally and was accepted two weeks before classes started. I was excited; it was even closer to what I wanted to do, and I wouldn’t have to make the terrifying drive or sacrifice every other Friday afternoon to bus rides.

A few days later I received a call from the residency office telling me I was not an established Wisconsin resident and didn’t qualify for in-state tuition. I had to establish residency first. Despite having been a Wisconsin resident almost all of my life; despite having parents who had been Wisconsin residents for decades; despite receiving a degree at a public University in Wisconsin; despite having a valid Wisconsin state ID; despite owning a car registered in Wisconsin; despite having filed Wisconsin income taxes for the past three years.

“So, which state do I have residency in instead?” was the question I wanted to spit out, but never asked out loud.

I called them back and they told me the only way to prove my Wisconsin residency was to get tax documentation from my parents.

My gut dropped when I thought of the months-long tax battle I’d only recently gotten over. I told the caller that this was not an option for me. That they had basically disowned any commitment to me.

“But look at it this way,” he said. “You’re getting an education to better yourself. I’m sure they’ll want to help you do that.”

I thought of my dad’s furious reactions when I said how much I liked college and how much I was learning; his bitter conversations with my mother on how horrible this college experience was for the family. I thought of his sharp email asking me where I was going to get money for the Study Abroad trip I wanted to take. Their refusal to grant me even grocery money. Withholding vital documents and information I needed.

No, sir, they do not want me to succeed.

“They have proven to me several times that they will not do anything to help me,” I said as calmly as I could.

He relented and told me I could appeal. I groaned inwardly at the amount of work I’d have to do and hoops I’d have to jump through to in order to file the appeal. It was a week before classes started, and there was no guarantee my appeal would go through.

My only other option was to sustain myself financially for a year without attending school. It was stupid, but the easiest and most feasible option.

I contacted the registrar, and they delayed my enrollment until the fall of next year. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was the same day I sent in my official withdrawal from Alverno.

**

At the same time, I sigh at the bittersweet knowledge I will not be returning to the familiar classrooms, not joining my friends in the exhilarating scramble for fresh school supplies. But then I see my kids at work preparing themselves for the upcoming quarter, and feel the same excitement I felt at the end of last summer. I look at my plans for my programs in the public schools and feel the same shivers in my chest.

The thrill of gathering notebooks and binders for myself can wait.

Now I’m preparing myself to set out on a new adventure, where my learning doesn’t come from books and papers; where I’m the one writing the curriculums and presenting them to classrooms. I’ve been an educator and even a teacher before. But this is the first time it’s my full-time job, and this is the first time that the programs I’m a part of are my own.

The same day I withdrew form one school and confirmed the date of my enrollment for another was the last day of camp. I said goody-bye to some of my campers. For those who are returning for our school-year programs, I tease them with hints at what I have planned for them. I can’t wait to get them involved in the projects and activities I have in store. All my preparation over the past few months has been leading me towards those moments.

It’s been a great summer, and it’s going to be a great fall.

 

I Wore the Mask I Thought I’d Left Behind

I Wore the Mask I Thought I’d Left Behind

On Monday I was planning suicide. I woke up with a grim determination that it was time for my life to be over. I felt nothing. Not when my roommate said good morning. Not when my friend walked to work with me. Not when I taught Safe Ally Training to a bunch of wonderful people with one of my closest friends. Not when I tutored one of my own students, not when my boss joked around with me. I was wearing the mask my mother had taught me to use after years of her isolating me when I showed emotion.

I laughed. I smiled. I engaged in conversation. I was productive. But inside I was numb, burnt out by pain and loneliness and self-hatred. Inside I was convinced my friends had never really loved me, that my close friends would soon cease to love me. Inside, I was ready to die.

A few friends reached out. Noticed I was upset. I felt nothing. I went through the motions. I counted the hours till I could escape.

I thought of asking for help. Calling Crisis.

It never occurred to me to tell a friend. Never occurred that there were people who cared. I was convinced no one did.

I decided to go to work first. The last job of the day. My kids.

As I got ready to go, thoughts of self-preservation left in favor of writing out a will. I left my wallet, my money, and my cards on my desk. I5 gave my cat extra food, extra love. I snuggled the bunnies that didn’t like me. I conversed briefly with my roommate’s boyfriend, pretending I was invested, pretending I wasn’t about to leave and never come back.

When my ride dropped me off after work, I decided, I’d walk away and never come back. I’d find a bridge. I’d jump. It would all be over.

I wore my mask all the way there. Engaged in pleasant conversation with my ride. No one was allowed to see what was going on inside me.

I went through the motions at work. Laughed with my co-workers. Pretended everything was fine. They had no idea.

Then it was time to check in my kids.

I walked into the room where I was supposed to be to check in my 12 kindergartners. Incidentally, the teacher had let them out early today. Over half of them were already there, and they were looking for me. Under the table. Around corners.

They yelled my name when they saw me, and one ran into me for a hug. Several asked where I had been. I laughed and told them I hadn’t known they were there.

“Were you worried I wouldn’t come?” I asked one of the more vocal kids.

He tilted his head in consideration, then shook it definitively. “No, I knew you would be here,” he said.

That’s when the feeling came–for the first time–guilt. Worry. Regret.

How could I leave these kids behind?

I heard them saying my name with enthusiasm. I saw their excitement at seeing me. I saw their pure joy when they received new shoes as part of the programming for the day. I witnessed their sadness and fatigue when they encountered difficulties during the day. I listened to their needs and allowed them to skip homework. Instead, we played quiet games and colored pictures until it was time to go home.

I smiled and laughed with the parents, telling them about their child’s day, saying goodbye to the kids and hearing them chatter excitedly about what they had done and how excited they were to come back.

What was I thinking? I couldn’t leave my kids behind.

I rode back with my ride, in silence this time. I loved my kids. But I couldn’t shake what I had been feeling all day. I made a deal with myself: if she dropped me off in the parking lot, I’d run and find a bridge. If she walked back to the building with me, I’d make up some story about “forgetting” my ID and let her let both of us in.

But when she dropped me off at the parking lot, I walked back to the apartment slowly, and thought about the kids–would they miss me on Wednesday if I was not just late, but really and truly not there?

What about the class I mentored for? They were coming over on Tuesday. Maybe I could still around at least until then.

A stranger let me into my building. I knocked on my apartment door, and my roommate let me in. i bluffed it off. Pretended I’d forgotten. I was just tired. Went to bed.

Her friends came over and I went back and forth, trying to be social, trying to convince people I was fine. But I’d always retreat back into my room, feeling like crying but at the same time too numb to do anything but lie there.

No matter how many times my roommate asked me what was wrong, I couldn’t say anything. I was just sick, I lied, just tired. I didn’t know why I was so sad. There was no reason. I kept the mask on.

Tuesday morning it was the same. I skipped my 8am class. Too sick, I convinced myself, even though it was only a small cold I’d been living with.

I got up ad went to work again. Tutoring. I joked around. But inside I was seething. This time I was angry–angry at absolutely everything and everyone. I even hated being queer. I hated everything about myself and my life. I wasn’t looking forward to anything, I was just sticking around to do what I felt was necessary before I took the next step, whether that was suicide or calling crisis.

My supervisor decided for me. I stormed into the Pride Center, ranting about something or other. She asked me what was wrong. Said I didn’t look like myself.

I told her I wanted to die, but I kept waiting until my commitments were over, but they never were. I was living hour to hour with suicidal thoughts and it was only a matter of time before I did something.

She said, “You need to talk to someone.”

I said, “I know, I will, after tonight.”

She said, “No, I think you should talk to somebody right now.”

I pushed back a few more times. I needed to go to class. To see my students. To attend the club meeting for which I was co-president. Eventually she won.

“Should I see someone on campus?”

They would just tell me to go to Crisis, so I may as well just get a friend to drive me there and skip the police car.

Another friend was there and gave me a few pointers. What to look for. Where to go. I texted some friends, asking who was available to drive me. Within seconds my roommate replied, telling me to meet her outside the Union.

I gathered my things and walked outside. My numbness was wearing off as the situation became more real. Why was I doing this? Why was I so scared? Why did no one trust me to stick around?

I’d had the training. I should know.

I wanted to die.

I wanted to die, and my friends were trying to keep me safe.

Even if that meant going away . Even if that meant being processed by strangers.  Even if that meant admitting that I was a danger to myself.